Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Definition of "Know"

Over a decade ago Bill Clinton questioned what the "definition of 'IS' is"?

In today's social media world the definition of the word "know" is just as hard to grasp.

Everyone seems to think they "know" everyone else. I was recommending a professional speaker for a conference and the meeting planner said; "Oh, I know her... she is not the right fit for our needs". I was surprised, as I thought it was a great match, so I inquired deeper about how they knew each other. Turns out, they had never met. The meeting planner had never seen this woman speak. She had never read her book or blog posts. She had only "heard her name around town".

Hearing someones name does not mean you "know" them.

According to, the definitions of know are:

–verb (used with object)

1. to perceive or understand as fact or truth; to apprehend clearly and with certainty: I know the situation fully.

2. to have established or fixed in the mind or memory: to know a poem by heart; Do you know the way to the park from here?

3. to be cognizant or aware of: I know it.

4. be acquainted with (a thing, place, person, etc.), as by sight, experience, or report: to know the mayor.
5. to understand from experience or attainment (usually fol. by how before an infinitive): to know how to make gingerbread.
6. to be able to distinguish, as one from another: to know right from wrong.
7. Archaic. to have sexual intercourse with.
(Bill Clinton almost knows Monica Lewinsky)

–verb (used without object)

8. to have knowledge or clear and certain perception, as of fact or truth.

9. to be cognizant or aware, as of some fact, circumstance, or occurrence; have information, as about something.


10. the fact or state of knowing; knowledge.


in the know, possessing inside, secret, or special information.

know the ropes, Informal. to understand or be familiar with the particulars of a subject or business: He knew the ropes better than anyone else in politics.
All of these definitions lead one to expect to more knowledge than a casual observation from afar.

However, with the overload of information available to everyone in this digital media age, people tend to take leaps from the casual to the intimate without cause or a second thought.

I get Facebook and LinkedIn requests all the time from people whom I have never had any contact. I have personal policy to not accept such link requests, as to have a huge list of strangers is no different than holding up the printed White Pages and claiming it is your network. You would have names, addresses and phone numbers of thousands of people allowing you to contact anyone in the phone book.

(Added: I do have people in my contacts with whom I have never actually met in person, but have had the "digital equivalent" because we have traded messages, email, read each others blogs, etc....)

But a real network is not a "Cold Call List". Knowing someone means you both share a mutual understanding of each other.

Here is a key example: I don't know Barak Obama. I know about Barak Obama. We have never met, we have not shared a beer together. I would never claim I "know" him, and if I did, people would know I was a fraud.

Are you a fraud in claiming associations and the definition of who is in your network?

Do you prejudge others based on no real information? Jumping to conclusions without actual knowledge does not make you look smart.... but we human beings do this all the time.

Next time you say "I know them"....ask yourself if you actually "know them". Often times you will discover you have heard some stuff, but probably don't "know".

Have A Great Day.



Ari Herzog said...

By your logic, Thom, how do you explain your connection to me on LinkedIn unless you know me? Stated differently, perhaps you should edit the above to stipulate knowing someone does not stipulate in-person contact?

Thom Singer said...


There are several exceptions to the "rule". The main one being a "digital equivilent" of getting to know someone. You and I have traded many messages via Twitter and blogs, etc.. Thus with some folks it is the "same" as creating a foundation. Had you sent me a LinkedIn request and we had never corresponded... I would not have accepted it.

There are ways of knowing someone without sitting across the table. But in general, I stand by what I said. "Knowing" is morphing and I think we need to continue to value the power of real "knowing" of other humans.

David Bradley said...

There has to be a foundation before one can say one "knows" another person. But, the concept that this has to be face to face or over the phone is fading and has been for at least two decades. Why shouldn't one describe someone who one has never actually met as a friend? I've worked with several people over the last few years that with whom I've never shaken hands but we have mutual trust and respect. Shaking hands is a trivial process just like exchanging emails, anyway. Some people might be uncomfortable with that, but that's the way things are going. Moreover, not everyone has a hand to shake!

Thom Singer said...


I agree that you can create relationships without meeting... so that part is okay. My gripe is that people to claim more and more that they "know" people whom they have never interacted with.

I guess I failed in getting that distinction across in this post. Yes, you need not only develop a relationship "face to face"... but it takes two people being engaged to have relationship. Observing someone is not "knowing" them.